Former president Bill Clinton told an interviewer that he thought President Obama should "honor the commitment the federal government made" and let people keep insurance policies they have. Obama's one-time "Secretary of Explainin' Stuff" doesn't seem to understand the math problem that presents. Or, more likely, the time has come for Team Clinton to put 2016 ahead of its tenuous loyalty to the sitting president.
The interview, given to Ozy.com (which appears to be a news site for millenials), focused on Clinton's reaction to the rollout of Obamacare. Clinton outlined four ways in which the process could have been improved. The last is the one that's generated the most attention.
Clinton tells the story of a young person he met who'd been forced to switch his insurance plan. The new plan cost more, he told Clinton, but the co-pays and deductibles are much lower. (The relevant segment of the video starts at 3:15.)
"So he said, 'In the years I use healthcare, I might actually save money.' But he said, 'You know, we're all young and we're all healthy.' So, I personally believe, even if it takes a change in the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they've got."
President Obama's repeated claims on the campaign trail that Americans could keep their existing health insurance policies has been one of the most strident attacks from Republicans, prompting a (sort of) apology from Obama and a subtle tweak to how the administration talks about the Affordable Care Act. The problem, as the administration has known for at least three years, is that the mandates in the ACA require higher levels of coverage than most Americans choose for themselves. The person with whom Clinton spoke paid less per month because his coverage was much worse. Since one of the goals of Obamacare was to prevent people from suffering economic catastrophe in the event of a serious health problem, many policies that had very high deductibles were rendered invalid.
But this young person with whom Clinton spoke represents another important aspect to the ACA: getting "young" and "healthy" people to contribute more to the pool. From the outset, Obama has focused on the need to get young people signed up primarily because those premiums would help keep costs down for everyone else. Insurers can keep premiums lower across the board and expand coverage if more people who are less likely to get sick are giving monthly checks. The young person that spoke with Clinton is key to making Obamacare work.
So there are three possibilities for why Clinton said what he did.
Possibility 1: Clinton doesn't understand the economics of Obamacare.
There's no reason to think that this is the case. Clinton's star moment in the 2012 race was in his informal role as "Explainin' Secretary" at the Democratic convention, when he gave a stemwinder explaining how most of the American economy and, in particular, the ACA was put together. If Clinton doesn't understand the economics above, then he's forgotten a lot in the past year.
Possibility 2: Clinton is going off the reservation.
During the heated 2008 Democratic primaries, Clinton risked doing serious damage to his reputation by dismissing Obama's South Carolina win. It was a very unhelpful moment for the Hillary team, prompting accusations that Clinton was trying to race-bait voters to his wife's benefit. As a Hillary aide told the authors of Game Change, "It would take 10 Freudians to explain what Bill Clinton did to Hillary in South Carolina."
It doesn't seem to have been that at all. Instead, it was Bill Clinton explainin' stuff, a tendency known in other contexts as "mansplaining." Bill Clinton is a proud advocate of mansplaining. He's a smart guy that once ran the United States. He has opinions on things, and can, at times, be indiscreet in how those opinions are shared. This Ozy.com interview could have been exactly that.
Possibility 3: Clinton was trying to distance his wife from an unpopular policy.
Clinton knows better than most how broken promises can tank political careers. In 1992, he defeated George H. W. Bush after the sitting president violated his "read my lips; no new taxes" pledge. Everything that happens between now and 2016 will be fodder for Hillary's opponents, so there's political value in distancing her from any perceived misrepresentations by Obama. Clinton won't be running on Obama's record, but it's safe to assume that Obamacare will come up. Clinton just offered Hillary a little cover on a possibly problematic topic.
In other words: Maybe Clinton said what he did because he wants to help his wife's presidential bid. Of the three possibilities, this is obviously the most likely. Perhaps Obama should have tried harder to get Clinton to stick around for a second term as Secretary of State.
The interview video above concludes with Clinton making a joke. "You know, politics is the only profession," he told the interviewer, "where people are surprised if you know anything." Perhaps because people expect political considerations to trump a strightforward answer.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.